Celtic society was known for its rather elaborate yet defined system which separated the intellectual roles into three professioanl branches: the Bards, or the singers of praises and feared satirists, the Vates, or the diviners and seers, and the Druids, or the priests and wizards, judges and advisors, prophets and teachers of the Celtic world. Merlin is a man of great magic and mystery, making him one of the most enigmatic figure in the Arthurian legend. However, it was his accurate prophecies regarding the history of Britain and the rise and fall of its three kings that made him a legendary Druid. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book History of the Kings of Britain described Merlin as a great wizard and prophet who inspired admiration and trust of the elder magicians of his time and the three kings of Britain: Vortigern, Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, through his accurate prophecies.
Geoffrey of Monmouth introduced Merlin during King Vortigen’s construction of a strong tower for his protection at Mount Erir in Cambria. It was established that Merlin was sired by the so-called incubus, or the spirits which inhabit between the moon and the earth (Geoffrey of Monmouth 6). At such a young age, Merlin exhibited his wisdom and power as a prophet when he stated that the reason behind the repeated caving in of the foundation was the pond beneath the land where the tower was being built, and the red and white dragons that were trapped under the pond. When his prophecy was confirmed, the elder magicians and King Vortigern himself, admired him greatly. He went on to predict about the future of Britain as signified by the two fighting dragons, as well as the death that would eventually come to Vortigern. Without hesitation, a characteristic that convinced the audience of Merlin’s wisdom, he predicted that the king will be burned by Aurelius Ambrosius in the same tower that he, the king, was buiding for his protection. This, along with his other first predictions, came to happen in the history of Britain.
An explanation behind Merlin’s great power is explained in Prose Merlin by Robert de Baron. It is said that Merlin was born between an incubus and a woman of noble birth, which was consistent with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s accounting. Prose of Merlin bears a resemblance to the Biblical Book of Job, stating that the “the fiends of hell seek a means by which to undo the work of Christ” (Conlee 1998). Merlin was to be the demonic agent who would do the bidding of the evil, but the plan was foiled after Merlin was baptised by a holy man named Blase or Blaise, the religious advisor of Merlin’s mother. With the death of Vortiger, Aurelius Ambrosius, also known as Pendragon and brother to Uther, rose to power. Merlin prophecised Pendragon’s death, which eventually happened in the great battle in Salisbury, exactly the way Merlin predicted.
Merlin’s power was shown in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book, as he was summoned by Pendragon to consult about a monument he was planning to build in honor of the great warriors who died in battle. Merlin suggested they remove the Giant’s Dance from the mountain of Killaraus in Ireland, he was laughed at by Pendragon. After he explained that the stones had healing virtues (Geoffrey of Monmouth 17). In the end, he was ordered to go with Uther to get the stones. There he proved his power by taking down the stones that the soldiers failed to do. Back in Britain, he was again ordered by Pendragon to set up the stones, which he did the exact way there were in Ireland. In these two events, Merlin exhibited strength that is more than the strength of a number of soldiers combined, a proof that he possessed such magical power. He also showed the same magical prowess when he shifted Uther, the king who preceded Pendragon after he was killed, to the form of Cador to be able to sleep with Ygerna, Cador’s wife. It was said that it was during this night that Arthur, the next king after Uther, was conceived.
Geoffrey of Monmouth and other Arthurian authors wrote that Merlin, after engineering Arthur’s conception, was not present during Arthur’s reign. However, the Prose Merlin says that he was very much alive and involved in the activities of the kingdom even until before Arthur was elected king through the sword in the stone (Goodrich & Thompson 168). His absence during the beginning of Lancelot was due to his successor, the Lady of the Lake, who “put him to sleep” until Doomsday when Arthur would come to wake him. Merlin was the military strategist during Arthur’s struggle with his unruly barons. Prose Merlin described Merlin as an active character who took part in the plannig of the events, deflecting catastrophic situations, and at times riding in front of Arthur’s troops in battle to carry Arthur’s fire-spewing-dragon which Merlin himself devised (Conlee). He contributed to Arthur’s victory against his barons when he counselled him to send for King Ban of Benwick and King Bors of Gaul. In this version, Merlin was described more as a Druid functioning as the king’s counselor, laying out strategies in order to win in battles waged by unruly followers.
Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur bore significance with Prose Merlin, except that Morte d’Arthur talked about the events in Arthur’s life, from his birth until shortly after his death, while Prose Merlin described the history of Merlin. Malory narrated Merlin’s active participation in Arthur’s life, from his conception and throughout his reign until Merlin died. He was a constant figure in Arthur’s reign, serving as a Druid who gave the king counsel and used his magic as a powerful wizard to disguise himself in order to spread knowledge and guidance. It was aslo Merlin who made Arthur the owner of Excalibur, the mighty sword from the Lady of the Lake. As a prophet, Merlin told prophecies about Arthur’s almost death in the hands of Accolon, Morgan le Fay’s husband, the sangreal and his own death. “When I am dead these tapers shall burn no longer, and soon after the adventures if the Sangreal shall come among you and be achieved.” (Malory). Merlin served Arthur well as a Druid with his wizardry and prophecy, but came to an end in the hands of Nimue, also known as the Damsel of the Lake, who sealed him inside a cave.
Merlin as a prophet was also known as Myrddin and Taliesin in the Welsh traditions. His character was introduced by the Celtic historian Nennius, who was also a monk. Myrddin’s prophecies were said to be contained in the poems “The Apple-trees,” “The Birch-trees” and “The Greetings,” all of which are found in the Black Book of Carmarthen (Jarman 103). Myrddin was portrayed to be a wild man who lived in the Caledonian Forest, where he was believed to flee after going mad in the battle of Arthuret. It was said that Myrddin acquired his gift of prophecy during this time of madness, with most of his predictions conveying the victory the Welsh will achieve against their enemies. Geoffrey’s Historia was lifted from this tale from Nennius’s compilation. From Myrddin, Geoffrey changed it to Ambrosius, a name Merlin was also known for.
Various versions of Merlin’s story all depicted him as either a wizard or a prophet or both, with great wisdom and power, characteristics that classified him as a Druid according to the Celtic society. From being a character in a Celtic myth, Merlin made his way to the Arthurian legend through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. He was a prominent figure in the reigns of King Vortigern, Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, and according to other authors, as well as King Arthur’s. His prophecies and wizard powers shaped the history of Britain as told in the Arthurian legend.
Monmouth, Geoffrey. History of the Kings of Britain. 1138. Web. 2 Mar. 2014.
Jarman, A.O.H. “The Arthurian Allusions in the Black Book of Carmarthen.” Arthurian Studies
viii: The Legend of Arthur in the Middle Ages, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 1983. Google
Books. Web. 2 Mar. 2014.
John Conlee, ed. “Prose Merlin: Introduction.” Introduction. Prose Merlin. Michigan: Medieval
Institue Publications, 1998. Robbins Library Digital Projects Web. 2 Mar. 2014. Web.
Goodrich, Peter H. and Raymond H. Thompson, eds. Merlin: A Casebook. eds. Google
Books. Web. 2 Mar. 2014.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte D’Arthur (King Arthur and of his Noble Knights of the Round
Table). Ed. William Caxton. Vol. 1. 2009. Web. 2 vols.